Messages From The Past - Panama's Petroglyphs
by Louis R. Granger
The Panama Canal Review, May 1969

You can miss them easily enough even when searching, and anyone who has walked up a stream bed or along some of the many valleys in Panama may have seen but not recognized the petroglyphs -- huge rocks and boulders on which the Indians left part of their indelibly written history 1,000 years ago.

These large gray masses dot much of the Interior, but to discover them takes more than an adventurous spirit and boundless energy, although these qualities help.

A study of the ancient Carib Indians who are credited with engraving their hieroglyphics, is a must.  Warlike, but highly skilled in the arts and crafts, the Caribs chipped out their messages on only certain boulders -- those that faced water, either a stream, river, or pond.

The inscriptions invariably face the upstream direction or mountain ranges where rain clouds first begin to darken the sky.  It can e assumed, therefore, that some of the writing may have been for the benefit of the rain god.

The Caribs populated Panama from approximately 900 to 1,500 years ago.  Although little is known about their hieroglyphics compared to the writings of the Mayan culture, the petroglyphs may have been used to commemorate certain festivities or religious functions, warnings to other tribes not to trespass and to explain the ways of the spirits.

Sun And Rain

Various sized circles, and symmetrical signs possibly indicating the sun, rain and earth, death masks, and animals such as alligators and monkeys adorn the petroglyphs.

There is one location where Sunday explorers from the Canal Zone and Panama City can, with a bit of effort, examine a petroglyph.

Drive west 46 miles along the Inter-American Highway to Bejuco and turn right at the El Economico store onto a dirt road, the only one there is, located approximately in the middle of the town.  It leads to the village of Sora.  About half a mile out of Bejuco you will come to a grove of coconut palm trees.  Just to the right, on a hill, will be an outcropping of dark, gray rock, the site of several petroglyphs.

You will have to climb over the larger boulders which overlook the palm grove and examine them closely to find the engravings.  The largest one is of a 5-foot alligator.   On another boulder, a little farther down the hill where it gets difficult to walk, are many small circles and a symmetrical circular design dug out of the rock's surface.

Other sites where petroglyphs have been found include:  El Valle, La Pintada, Rio Grande, Calobre, Atalaya, Ocu, La Mesa, Sona, Mamey, Boca Baja, Remedios, Caldera, Boquete, Concepcion, San Miguel, and El Volcan.

Easy To Miss

To find them is another matter.  Weathered over the hundreds of years since the Indians engraved them, a person, unaware of their presence, could stand on a petroglyph and not see the hieroglyphics.

But if you have the time, plenty of it, and the inclination, you can talk to farmers who live in the areas where the petroglyphs are found and know their location.

The writing is not the only significant thing about these stones.  On 90 percent of the larger ones are blood basins and drainage canals leading down the sides.

One theory, and there are many connected with the petroglyphs, is that the Carib hieroglyphics were made for certain festivals and ceremonies, and that humans were sacrificed on the rocks to bring good luck to the tribe.

The first petroglyph in Panama was discovered in 1898, and by 1953 only three were known.   but that year, the most zealous petroglyph hunter in the Republic of Panama, Neville A. Harte, began his quest.

In seven years between 1953 and 1960, Harte, now 62 and a retired PanCanal employee spent all of his spare time and $12,000 of his own money in searching out the petroglyphs.   He discovered and investigated 280 of them traveling by jeep, horseback, dugout and on foot through the Interior.

A Booklet

Part of his expenses was for a booklet he published titled Panorama of Panama Petroglyphs.  Copies are in the Canal Zone Library.

Petroglyphs are found throughout most of the world and a charcoal rubbing of one in Hawaii can be seen in the Canal Zone Library-Museum.

The Caribs worshiped various gods and spirits and apparently implored them to give rain, good crops, and animals to hunt.  Hunters from various tribes would occasionally travel out of their territory to hunt and possibly plunder villages and graves where much of the other tribe's wealth and religious totems were to be found.

According to belief, even today, an Indian never dies, but goes to a happier, more plentiful life.  therefore, their wealth consisting of gold ornaments, colorful feathers and pottery was buried with them.

To protect the graves and to keep away pillaging warriors from other tribes, some of the petroglyphs appear to have been engraved with warnings saying that trespassers would be dealt with severely and possibly face death.  The death's head design such as one found at Sona in Veraguas Province may have been a warning sign.  The boulder it was engraved on was a sacrificial altar.  On the top is a blood basin where humans were sacrificed to the gods.

Grave Robbing

then, as now, Indian graves were robbed.  The Caribs believed that if they could obtain the items placed in the graves of great warriors or tribal chiefs they would receive their power and strength.  Today, however, unlawful grave robbing is for the artifacts they may contain.

Many of the petroglyphs are cracked.  The theory is that the Caribs may have built fires on the rocks as part of their ceremonies.  During his investigations, Harte has found modern-day coins in some of the cracks indicating that some of the natives of the Interior still regard these strange boulders with ancient carvings as more than mere large stones, and throwing a coin or two within the crack might bring them luck.

Although Harte admits he is only an amateur archeologist, he discounts one theory for the purpose of petroglyphs given by some American archeologists.

"A lot of Americans think these are only signs to the Indians that there was good hunting in that area.  That's a lot of hooey because they would know whether there was good hunting there without having to read signs," he said.

A reason for some of the petroglyphs was for grave markers.  Circles represent graves, explains Harte, who proved this theory by actually finding grave sites indicated by the circles found on a petroglyph.


Some of the boulders Harte discovered had to be dug up from under several feet of earth.   It is still a mystery why some were buried, but one possibility is that the invading Spanish saw them and decided to hide them from the Indians as punishment.   Some of them may have been placed over graves and sunk down.  Whatever the reason, the buried ones were kept in better condition because they were away from the weather.

Through his studies, Harte has found that there was no variation either in the depth or width of the inscriptions on any of the rocks.  Each engraved line was a quarter of an inch deep and five eighths of an inch wide.

"This indicates that they used the same type of tools to make the engravings," Harte said.

How Harte was able to discover the petroglyphs was a combination of instinct, knowing a lot about what he was looking for, and hard work.

Dedicated to the hunt, Harte said his instincts often led him to the right place.  He would then look for broken rock and chips which remained over the years.  "When I found a stone where it wasn't supposed to be then I knew there was something interesting there."

3 Days

The petroglyphs not buried invariably became covered with moss, vines, and other toupees of vegetation.  He has spent as much as 3 days cleaning off a boulder to get down to the engravings.

Once a petroglyph has been cleaned, Harte uses chalk to outline the designs so they will stand out more clearly to be studied and photographed.

Harte was born in England.  By the time he was 11 years old he was interested in archeology and dug in the Roman ruins around Great Britain.  He moved to the United States at 16 and came to Panama 28 years ago from Florida.

"I planned to stay in Panama for 6 months, but then I got interested in the local history and I forgot all about the time," he said.

It is likely that some petroglyphs are still to be found in Panama.  But before you pack your picnic hamper and scurry off to the nearest stream, think again.

First, you must have a government permit to dig in the Republic.  It would probably take you days on end to find a petroglyph, and when you did, you would have to spend several more days cleaning it off.  It would cost  you money to pay your way there and back and for workmen to help you dig up a boulder.  And since it would be next to impossible to take the petroglyph home, the best  you could hope to wind up with would be a photograph. 

Presented by CZBrats
February 5, 1999
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